Big-Game Hunter John Kingsley-Heath recovering in 1961
Big-Game Hunter John Kingsley-Heath
John Kingsley-Heath, who has died aged 84, ran African safaris for more than half a century, and as a big-game hunter survived many hair-raising encounters with the fiercest beasts of the bush.
One such occurred in August 1961, when Kingsley-Heath was leading a private safari along the Kisigo river in Tanganyika. From inside a blind (a shelter for hunters), he turned to see a huge, maned lion crouching behind him not 15ft away. As it gathered itself to spring, Kingsley-Heath shot it, and the lion fled. He and his gunbearers gave chase and found the wounded creature lying on its side, breathing heavily.
It was down, but not out. When Kingsley-Heath's client opened fire, the lion made a single bound of 22ft towards the two men. Kingsley-Heath dropped to the ground and smashed the barrel of his .470 rifle over the animal's head, breaking the stock at the pistol grip; the lion staggered. As his gunbearers and client ran for cover Kingsley-Heath struggled on to his elbows to get clear.
"Too late," he recalled, "the lion was upon me, I smelt his foul breath as, doubling my legs up to protect my stomach, I hit him in the mouth with my right fist as hard as I could. His mouth must have been partly open as my fist went straight in."
With a single jerk of its head, the lion broke Kingsley-Heath's right arm; as he punched it with his left fist, the lion bit clean through his left wrist, breaking the left arm and leaving the hand hanging by its sinews. Next it clamped his foot in its jaws, crushing the bones in it by twisting his ankle.
One of the gunbearers arrived, threw himself on the animal's back and stabbed it repeatedly with a hunting knife. With Kingsley-Heath's foot still locked in its mouth, the lion was finally shot dead. The client reappeared, and with his rifle blew the creature's jaws apart so that Kingsley-Heath's foot could be removed.
"I was bleeding heavily... shaking uncontrollably, felt cold, and was likely to lose consciousness," he wrote later. "I knew that if I did so, I might die." Instead, after an agonising and protracted medical evacuation, followed by surgery and a bout of malaria, he eventually recovered.
Peter John Kingsley-Heath was born in Jerusalem on December 4 1926, the son of Col AJ Kingsley-Heath OBE, formerly Commissioner of Police and sometime Attorney General of Kenya.
After attending Monkton Combe School, Bath, he joined the Welsh Guards and was commissioned at 18. Towards the end of the Second World War, when he was a serving captain, he was injured by bullet in France; he was later wounded by a landmine in Palestine.
After the war he returned to study History and Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Economics at London University. A hockey blue at Cambridge, he was subsequently capped for England and regularly played rugby for Blackheath.
Kingsley-Heath was appointed a Colonial Service district officer in Tanganyika, and then, in 1949, to the East Africa High Commission in Kenya. In this capacity he travelled extensively in Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Arabia, as both an administrator specialising in desert locust control, and as an honorary game warden. The most lethal animal that he encountered at this, or any time, was the hippopotamus; indeed a fellow district officer was lucky to survive being bitten in the buttocks after straying between a mother and her calf. "He made a full recovery," noted Kingsley-Heath, "but I am told he walked like a sailor thereafter."
Throughout his hunting career Kingsley-Heath saw no contradiction between legal big-game hunting and conservation. "For much of the period, game animals were plentiful everywhere," he noted, adding that his conscience never bothered him. "My hunting was done in accordance with the laws of the land and permissions were based on facts that supported wildlife policies." When, in 1978, it became clear that growing human populations were endangering game stocks, he stopped. "It was time to make a change, and I did so."
Until then, however, Kingsley-Heath's life had seemed composed of a series of Boy's Own Paper adventures.
In 1956, before Kenyan independence, he was befriended by Syd Downey, who invited him to join Ker & Downey Safaris, the luxury tour operators. Kingsley-Heath became a director, responsible for opening the company's offices in Tanganyika and for making a survey of wildlife potential in Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Mozambique.
As his reputation grew he was hired to accompany many famous people on safari, and to manage wildlife on the films Hatari (1962), starring John Wayne, and Sammy Going South (1963) with Edward G Robinson. Kingsley-Heath's task on the latter was "to arrange for a charging, snarling leopard full into the camera at point-blank range and for all thereafter to be safe and happy, including the leopard." The cameramen, understandably, were "petrified", but after three "takes" (including one in which a wild leopard smashed the lens off the camera) the footage was secured.
In 1964 Kingsley-Heath joined another company, Safari South, in Bechuanaland, playing a major part in the development of tourism there. The work required an him to make an annual overland migration with men and equipment south from Nairobi along 2,158 miles of dirt tracks to Francistown. The voyage included many tricky moments, including the ferrying of a 10-ton supply truck across the Zambezi on a rickety barge. The crossing was, Kingsley-Heath noted, "a time for prayer".
Over the next 14 years he survived perilous near-misses with every member of Africa's so-called "Big Five" – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Perhaps his most bizarre adventure occurred in Kenya, near the Galana river between Nairobi and Mombasa. It was there, in 1967, that Kingsley-Heath and a client were tracking a bull-elephant "carrying good ivory". Once the elephant had been killed, the client and a gunbearer leant back against the trophy only to feel it shift behind them. Wordlessly, they looked around to find a rhino nudging up against the body.
With nowhere to run or hide, the two men were forced to take refuge on top of the dead elephant where, to their horror, they were repeatedly charged by the rhino, a protected species that they were unable to shoot. Finally, as the elephant rocked back and forth under this assault, the client "could stand it no longer" and shot the rhino, forcing Kingsley-Heath to make a embarrassed call to the chief game warden. "Strange things happen, stranger than fiction," came the reply, but with photographic evidence of the multiple gore wounds in the dead elephant, their tale was believed.
Kingsley-Heath, with his wife Sue, decided to leave Africa in 1978. Having run 2,000 acres on the slopes of Kilimanjaro when not hunting (growing wheat and driving beef cattle through hundreds of miles of bush), they decided to try farming in England. Here they played a major part in introducing Texel sheep from the island of that name in Holland into the British national flock.
With the support of the Prince of Wales, Kingsley-Heath also developed a Cornish Lamb Consortium for Cornish farmers fighting against abattoir and supermarket price domination.
In 1990 he was asked to return to Africa, where he was appointed chief park warden of the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda; he later became assistant director of national parks, staying for six years. He continued to lead safaris into his 80s, accompanied by his wife and in later years by his son Nigel, but their quarry on these occasions were photographs not trophies. Meanwhile, at home in Cornwall he planted his farm with thousands of trees to promote the natural wildlife around him.
In 1957 Kingsley-Heath won the Shaw and Hunter Trophy, awarded to the professional hunter who produces the finest trophy for a client. His book, Hunting the Dangerous Game of Africa, was published in 1998.
John Kingsley-Heath, who died on May 12, was the first to admit that he craved excitement from boyhood to the end of his life. "When my friends tell me that I have led a remarkable life," he reflected, "I have to admit having done my best to make it so."